Learning From Lennon

Nothing personal, Paul McCartney. Bill Frisell started playing John Lennon's music by accident

Bill Frisell's biggest fear about his ongoing tribute to the music of John Lennon is that anyone would assume he means to slight the music of Paul McCartney.

"I've never met Paul, and I would never want him or anyone else to think I thought any less of his music, because I love his music. But these things sometimes just present themselves. I mean, it wasn't even my idea originally," he says with a chuckle.

One of the most respected guitarists in jazz, the 63-year-old Frisell is on the phone from his home in Seattle, discussing the concert All We Are Saying: Bill Frisell Explores the Music of John Lennon, which comes to the Rialto Theatre on Sunday, May 18.

It will be Frisell's first performance in Tucson, although his now-storied career—during which he has played jazz, rock, blues, country, avant-garde and film music—extends back more than 30 years and includes dozens of albums.

Frisell will be joined by an all-star lineup of cutting-edge music veterans: violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Tony Scherr, steel guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

The Lennon project began about 10 years ago, Frisell reckons. Organizers of an event in Paris asked him to perform a tribute to the former Beatle. "It was either to mark the anniversary of his birth or his death, I can't remember. Anyway, I was about to start a tour of Europe with Jenny Scheinman and Greg Leisz, and they asked us to play some John Lennon tunes."

Frisell remembers that first experience playing Lennon with Scheinman and Leisz fondly.

"We thought, 'This is pretty cool!' So then we started learning some more Lennon songs and decided to do the whole tour that way. One night in Berlin at this club, we played a whole set of them. We didn't announce it in advance or anything; we just started playing them. And you could see the recognition on the audience's faces as the set went on."

After that tour, several years went by while Frisell, Scheinman and Leisz "didn't give it another thought." Eventually, though, the trio reunited for a gig at Yoshi's, the famous jazz club in Oakland, California, and added Scherr and Wollesen as the rhythm section. The five-piece were so successful playing Lennon tunes that they recorded the 2011 album, All We Are Saying. The group now regularly reunites to play Lennon songs between other projects and collaborations, Frisell says.

"Since then, what's been incredible is just the way the music keeps going, and how the songs reveal more and more to you each time we play them."

It's truly a sublime experience to hear Frisell and company re-create the melodies that caress Lennon's immortal lyrics. For instance, on "Across the Universe," we at first hear Frisell essaying such lines as "Jai Guru Deva OM" and "Nothing's gonna change my world," with Scheinman and Leisz providing ghostly accompaniment. Then, each of them takes up the melody on their respective instruments, entwining their playing in harmony with Frisell's.

And that's just the first track on the album. As the record proceeds, Frisell and his crew add a rockabilly twang to "Revolution," remake "Beautiful Boy" as a country-style canter, rediscover the funky strut of "Come Together" in an avant-garde context, and transform "Nowhere Man" and "Give Peace a Chance" into elegant examples of Americana chamber pop. Those are just a few of the 17 Lennon numbers on the disc.

And because most music listeners know these songs so well, we hear in our mind echoes of Lennon's voice in them, creating a delicious junction of past and present, pop-music canon and experimental variation, "Imagine" and imagination.

Frisell says he was one of the many budding musicians who watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago. Frisell was just starting to play electric guitar, and he says he might never have continued without the inspiration of the Beatles.

But until Paris, he'd never played Beatles music much. "The world was moving so fast back then, and new things were happening, I never really got a chance to play this music. It was such a part of my life in a concrete way, but until several years ago, I hadn't played much Beatles."

Now, he says, "It's really a revelation to really play these songs, after a life of playing music and having them always there. I learn little new things about the music and about myself every time I play them. It has a real effect on me. ... These songs changed the culture and the world when they first came out, and they still are."

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